An internship is a debut performance, not a dress rehearsal

Students and employers need a bridge between the academic world and the world of work

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At the end of the academic year, the thoughts of many students turn to one of the common stepping stones of their career paths: the summer internship.

Droves of students seek them out and employers allocate time and resources towards finding qualified students and administering the programmes. But in the end, what does it all add up to? A 2013 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 63.1 per cent of paid interns received a long-term job offer, but only 37 per cent of unpaid interns got an offer – roughly the same as students who did not do any internships at all.

And of course, it is not just getting a job that matters, it is getting the right job – and a critical component of that is getting the right internship. To choose an internship that will ultimately prove valuable, it helps immensely for a student to have already at least an early sense of their initial career direction. The problem is that a traditional college education does not always provide this direction.

Likewise, there are some very well-defined skills – hard and soft – that are not part of the current college agenda, but are absolutely integral to succeeding in the workplace and for the students who end up with the job offer at the end of the internship. Skills such as working effectively within teams – learning to be collaborative and helpful rather than just smart; understanding the basic financials and global context of a company – how to read balance sheets, income and cash flow statements; learning how to present effectively and with confidence.

To make sure internships are more valuable for students and employers, there needs to be a bridge between the academic world and the working world.

So what does that bridge look like? It is not another academic experience – not lectures and papers. It needs to be different – rigorous and demanding, but also safe in that it allows students to fail without losing out on a valuable job offer. It should be structured like a work day, to take young people from the value system and structure of academics into the value system and structure of work. It Is a programme that teaches students how to succeed when there is not clear direction or clear answers. It gives them the skills they need to get the most out of an internship, so that even if an employer places them in a corner without any direction, the student will create a valuable experience – one that highlights their contributions. It takes a sophisticated skill set to turn a negative into a positive, but those skills are teachable.

There are some basic things students and employers can do to get more out of internships. Students should focus on quality, not quantity. An internship should be a test of what a student thinks he or she would really like to do. Sometimes they will turn out to have been wrong and that too is alright. But taking on an internship without any clue makes a student less likely to come out with any real benefit.

And the hard truth is that any employer will judge their intern from day one and in most cases will make a quick decision about whether they fit with the company or not. If a student does not go in with the right skills, it is unlikely he or she will be offered a job.

Secondly students need to talk to other students who have interned at an organisation – how was their experience? What did they get out of it? Are they employed there now and if not, why not?

Perhaps most importantly, once you secure an internship, vow to yourself that you will not complain about it – not to yourself, your employer, your family or friends. This is not always easy, but it is critical. Let yourself have the experience, make it as positive as you can and judge its worth later.

From the employer’s point of view: interns can amaze or disappoint, but giving them a big, hairy, challenging assignment – obviously one with upside but not mission critical – will be your best bet to see whether you want them in your company long-term. Assign them to a young, up-and-coming manager who will appreciate the help and who can give them a relevant view of the company. Reporting to a senior person will probably leave interns isolated and under-attended. In any event, you will get much more out of students if they are challenged – err on the side of more rather than less – and you will be surprised by what they can do. And make frequent feedback a priority: young people are incredibly bright and adaptable – but need feedback so that they can improve quickly.

Rather than continuing to view internships as a series of dress rehearsals where mistakes can be made, it is time to start viewing them as the debut performances they really are. A student should be fully prepared because the audience is in their seats, watching intently and ready to be wowed.

The author is the co-founder and chief executive of the Fullbridge Program.

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